Commentary: Nike Oregon Project shuts down

Illustration by Raya Deussen

At the age of 17, Mary Cain was the youngest track and field athlete to make a World Championships team. She was on pace to become one of the most successful and accomplished female athletes ever. Cain had lofty goals; she wanted to raise the standard for female athletes everywhere. In order to achieve those goals, she signed on with the Nike Oregon Project, one of the most esteemed running programs in the U.S. led by highly respected coach Alberto Salazar. After six years in the program, Cain’s athletic future and mental health had collapsed. 

Her story exposes the toxic, sexist and hypocritical nature of Nike’s relationship with female athletes.

Cain decided to join the Oregon Project because she wanted to maximize her talent and the program offered some of the most successful track and field coaches that were supposed to help her do that. Instead, she faced intense physical and emotional abuse that decimated her talent and love of running. In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Cain recorded a video describing this abuse at the hands of Alberto Salazar.     

According to Cain, Salazar told her that in order to fulfill her potential she had to lose a certain amount of weight. He would have weekly weigh-ins that often took place publicly. If she did not make the weight he expected of her, she would be publicly shamed and embarrassed. Furthermore, he asked her to take a birth control pill and diuretic drugs in order to achieve that goal. Diuretic drugs are an officially banned substance in track and field. 

Salazar is serving a four-year ban for attempting to distribute illegal performance-enhancing drugs such as these diuretics to athletes within the Oregon Project. He has refused to admit he did anything wrong when it came to the coaching of Cain and others, claiming that challenging athletes is his job and Cain’s family was well aware of what was going on. However, even if he did believe that forcing a woman to lose weight would maximize her performance, when Cain came to him and other leaders of the project telling them that she had developed a serious eating disorder and was having suicidal thoughts, no one did anything to help her. The Oregon Project did not have a single sport psychologist on staff, which is a problematic oversight given the weighty expectations and challenging conditions that these young athletes endure on a daily basis. 

The root of this problem can be traced to the leadership within the Oregon Project. The coaches and administrators were almost entirely male. There was a blatant lack of understanding when it came to the anatomy of a female athlete and how to care for the female body. Cain revealed through her video that the dangerous amount of weight that Salazar wanted her to lose makes her far more prone to developing osteoporosis: a disease that reduces bone strength and leaves athletes more susceptible to breaking bones. Cain also reported a stoppage in her menstrual cycle that can lead to infertility later in life. 

In recent years, the Nike brand has become a huge endorser of female advancement in sports. They have signed on numerous prolific female athletes and produced commercials intended to inspire young girls to accomplish anything in athletics. Nike has even taken a political stance by siding with the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team in their fight for equal pay. However, these advertisements do not address the systemic sexism issue within Nike. For example, Allyson Felix, a U.S. Women’s track and field gold medalist, has appeared in several of these inspiring commercials that are supposed to encourage the empowerment of women in sports. At the same time, Felix was in a legal battle with Nike who wanted to pay her almost 70% less after she chose to have a child and then return to the sport.

Nike has since disbanded the Oregon Project after other women came forward expressing similar allegations against Salazar and other coaches within the program. However, in order to truly ameliorate conditions for women in athletes, Nike needs to stop hiding behind superfluous ad campaigns and instead make real changes. That could start by placing more female athletes in leadership positions who actually have an understanding of how to safely maximize the potential of women who want to achieve athletic greatness in a healthy and safer way like Mary Cain did.

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